|From 1962 until 1970 much of my creative activity was focused on the composition of an extended cycle of vocal works based on the poetry of Federico García Lorca. The cycle includes Night Music I (1963) for soprano, keyboard, and percussion, four books of Madrigals (1965-69) for soprano and a varying instrumental combination, Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death (1968) for baritone, electric instruments, and percussion, Night of the Four Moons (1969) for alto, banjo, alto flute, amplified cello, and percussion, and Ancient Voices of Children (1970) for soprano, boy soprano, and seven instrumentalists.
Of the eight works constituting the cycle, Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death is the largest in conception and the most intensely dramatic in its projection of Lorca's dark imagery. Although the first sketches for the work date from 1962, it was only in 1968 that I felt I had evolved a definitive form for my musical ideas. Songs, Drones, and Refrains was commissioned by the University of Iowa and first performed in the spring of 1969.
The important formal elements of the work are identified in the title. These are, first, the settings of four of Lorca's most beautiful death-poems: The Guitar, Casida of the Dark Doves, Song of the Rider, 1860, and Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water. Each of these settings is preceded by an instrumental "refrain" (also containing vocal elements projected by the instrumentalists, in most cases purely phonetic sounds) which presents, in various guises, the rhythmic, fateful motif heard at the beginning of the work. And finally, three long "Death-Drones" based on the interval of the fourth, and played by the amplified contrabass) dominate the musical texture in the first and last songs, and in Refrain 3.
García Lorca's poetry, with its fantastically rich expression and evocative power, provides an admirable vehicle for musical re-creation. The Guitar, starkly fatalistic, portrays a mood of utter desolation, and yet, there is also a sense of wonder, of profound mystery. The opening lines of the poem - "The lament of the guitar begins. The wine cups of daybreak are broken. The lament of the guitar begins. It is useless to hush it. It is impossible to hush it." - contain one of Lorca's oft recurrent images: the guitar as the primitive voice of the world's darkness and evil (in another poem, Malagueña: "Black horses and villainous people move along the deep paths of the guitar"). My setting of this poem includes cadenzas in quasi-Flamenco style for the more surreal electric guitar.
The Casida of the Dark Doves, with its undercurrent of irony (indicated in the score: "gently sardonic; in a bizarre, fantastic style"), provides a necessary moment of relief from the prevailing darkness and intensity of the work. I have sought to enhance the eerie whimsy of the poem by directing the baritone to sing in variously stylized manners ("mock-lyric", "mock-menacing", or "in mock-chant style"). The instrumental parts in the score are laid out in circular notations, which represent, symbolically, "el Sol" and "la Luna" (Sun and Moon).
The Song of the Rider, 1860 is a poem of violence and terror. In my earlier Madrigals, Book II, I had set only the refrain lines ("Little black horse. Whither with your dead rider? Little cold horse. What a scent of the flower of a knife!"), but in this complete setting of the poem I feel that I have more faithfully conveyed the demonic power of Lorca's imagination. The song is headed with the direction: "breathlessly, with relentlessly driving rhythm!" and the image of the galloping little horse is projected by the wild, hammered rhythms of lujon, crotales, drums, mallet instruments, and electric harpsichord. The climax of the song is marked by a thundering passage entitled "Cadenza appassionata for two drummers." The prototype of the genre represented by Song of the Rider, 1860 is obviously Schubert's 'Erlkönig'.
The final Casida of the Boy Wounded by the Water is my favorite of the various Lorca poems I have set with its gentle oscillation between the pitches B / G sharp and the tender lyricism of the baritone melody, is consciously reminiscent of Mahler. The third and final "Death-drone" announces the dark, impassioned central stanza of the poem. The drone takes the form of a huge, sustained crescendo; at the point of maximum intensity ("What a fury of love, what a wounding edge, such nocturnal murmurs, such a white death!") the screaming voice of a flexitone is heard; the drone seems to "explode", and as the intensity subsides the music takes on an aura of transfiguraton. The opening music is heard once again, this time punctuated by the deep bourdon sounds of piano and contrabass. Two gently flowing phrases played on water-tuned crystal glasses conclude the work.
Lorca's haunting, even mystical vision of death, which embodies, and yet transcends the ancient Spanish tradition, is the seminal force of his dark genius. In composing Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death I wanted to find a musical language which might complement this very beautiful poetry.
Quest was composed at the request of the guitarist David Starobin and was commissioned by Albert Augustine, Ltd. The final revised version of the work was completed in February, 1994, and is dedicated to David Starobin and Speculum Musicae.
Over the years David Starobin had played virtually all the various parts I had composed for plucked instruments - mandolin in Ancient Voices of Children, electric quitar in Songs, Drones, and Refrains of Death, sitar in Lux Aeterna, and banjo in Night of the Four Moons. In requesting this new piece he specified only that I write for acoustic guitar and that the guitar part be treated soloistically.
I initially toyed with the idea of a piece for guitar alone, but feelings of insecurity in regard to guitar technique and idiom led me quickly to the conception of an ensemble work. Within the chosen sextet of players the guitar remains the principal protagonist, but other instruments, especially the soprano saxophone, can also take over the principal "voice". The inclusion of a wide variety of percussion instruments gave me an exceptionally colourful palette of timbral and sonoric possibilities. I would specifically cite rather unusual instruments such as the Appalachian hammered dulcimer, the African talking drum, and the Mexican rain stick.
The poetic basis for Quest was never very clearly articulated in my thinking. I recall pondering images such as the famous incipit of Dante's Inferno ("In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray …") and a line from Lorca ("The dark paths of the guitar"); also the concept of a "quest" as a long tortuous journey towards an ecstatic and transfigured feeling of "arrival" became associated with certain musical ideas during the sketching process. But although the movement titles are poetic and symbolic, there is no precise programmatic meaning implied. There is one use of musical quotation in the work: phrases from the famous hymn tune Amazing Grace are played by the soprano saxophone - initially, at the conclusion of Dark Paths, over a delicate web of percussion sonority, and finally, in Nocturnal, over a sequentially slowing ostinato of bare fifths in the harp and contrabass. On the very last page of the score a distant echo of the tune is intoned by a harmonica, or, as in this recording, a concertina.
The composition of Quest turned out to be much more of an arduous "quest" than I could ever have imagined. An incomplete version was first performed in Amsterdam as early as 1989, as a work-in-progress, but only after several more years of constant revision did the work reach its present form.